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Waking, Dreaming, Being

Interview by Richard Marshall

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[Photo: Christian Coseru]

Evan Thompson is a cross cultural philosopher of waking, dreaming and being. He’s always awake to the philosophical challenges arising from sleep and dreaming, dreamless sleep, the ‘default view’, how the Indian perspective helps, of the clash between the default position and methodological requirements for investigating sleep consciousness, how Advaita Vedānta and Husserl help, of lucid dreamless sleeping, of white dreams, subjective insomnia, of the need to go cross-cultural, of broad philosophical issues about consciousness enriched by a cross-cultural approach, of meditation’s place, why it’s a scandal that more philosophy isn’t yet cross-cultural and why without philosophy certain crucial issues can’t be answered. Dream on …

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Evan Thompson: I’ve been interested in philosophy as long as I can remember. My parents say when I was four years old they suspected I might wind up being a philosopher. We were at Disneyland on the Captain Nemo Undersea Adventure ride. Sea monsters and sharks were lunging at the windows. I was terrified. My parents kept saying that they weren’t real. They tell me I looked up and asked, “Are we real?”

When I was a teenager, in the 1970s, I lived in an unusual setting. My father, William Irwin Thompson, had quit being a university professor in order to create an alternative educational institute and community, called the Lindisfarne Association, which was based in Southampton, New York and Manhattan. Lindisfarne was a kind of counter-cultural salon of scientists, artists, political activists, and religious and spiritual teachers from many traditions. I didn’t go to high school but instead was educated in the Lindisfarne community. So I was always around wide-ranging debate and had lots of people to talk to who encouraged my philosophical bent.

When I was twelve I read Lao Zi’s Dao De Jing and that hooked me on Daoism and early Chinese thought. A few years later someone gave me a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths. I read the story “The Circular Ruins” and then the essay, “A New Refutation of Time.” The first one ends with the thought that existence is a kind of dream and the second one builds on Berkeley and Hume in order to demonstrate that time doesn’t exist. These ideas were exhilarating and I devoured everything by Borges I could find. My schooling at that time also included studying Classical Greek, and I learned enough to read the New Testament and some Plato, and to try to make sense of the Presocratics using Kirk and Raven’s book, The Presocratic Philosophers.

When I went away to Amherst College I just wanted to keep learning about these kinds of things, so I studied Chinese language and history, and took classes in Philosophy, Classics, and Asian religions. I got very interested in Indian and Buddhist philosophies. By the time I graduated with a B.A. in Asian Studies, I realized it was really Philosophy that tied all these interests together for me, so I decided to get my Ph.D. in Philosophy.

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3:AM: You’ve written about the philosophical issues regarding dreaming, sleep and consciousness. Can you first say something about the default position that you are challenging, which is that in dreamless sleep consciousness goes away. It seems to be something that not only neuroscientists seem to hold but also it is something that Hume, for example, believed and contemporaries such as Searle.

ET: Most neuroscientists and philosophers of mind describe dreamless sleep as a blackout state in which consciousness is absent. They often use this idea to define consciousness by saying that “consciousness is that which disappears in dreamless sleep and reappears in the waking and dreaming states.” Searle has said this, as has the neuroscientist Giulio Tononi. I call this view the “default view” of consciousness and sleep because it’s a preset assumption that scientists and philosophers bring to the study of consciousness. It’s not a new idea, of course. Hume, as you point out, also said that awareness disappears in deep sleep, as did Locke (but Descartes and Leibniz, in different ways, disagreed).

3:AM: In Indian philosophy this isn’t always the default position is it?

ET: One of the fascinating and valuable things about the Indian philosophical tradition is that it has sophisticated and technical debates, spanning centuries, about whether dreamless sleep is a peculiar mode of consciousness or whether it’s a state in which consciousness is absent. Both Advaita Vedānta philosophers (Advaitins) and Buddhist philosophers argued that a subtle form of awareness continues in deep sleep (though they disagreed about the nature of this awareness), whereas the Nyāya philosophers (Nyaiyāyikas) held that consciousness is absent from dreamless sleep. The debates between the Advaitins and the Nyaiyāyikas especially are quite intricate and involve complex metaphysical issues about awareness and the self, epistemological issues about inference and memory, and phenomenological issues about sleep experience. In brief, the Advaitins argue that in the moment of waking up from a peaceful sleep, you know you were asleep and you know this from memory, but memory requires previous experience, so you must have experienced being asleep. The Nyaiyāyikas reply that your knowledge of having been asleep is based on retrospective inference, not memory, so no previous experience of being asleep need be posited. The Advaitins respond by arguing that such an inference, when carefully analyzed, actually requires precisely the kind of experience and memory that the Nyaiyāyikas think it obviates. To my knowledge, there’s no comparable debate in Greek, European, or Anglo-American philosophy, so this is one of the many areas where the Indian tradition has something unique and rich to contribute to philosophy of mind.

3:AM: How does the default position clash with the methodological requirements for investigating sleep consciousness?

ET: Jenny Windt talks about this clash in her excellent commentary on a recent article I wrote about dreamless sleep and consciousness; we’re also writing about this together. One of the basic methodological requirements of sleep and dream science is to assume that reports about conscious experience given immediately upon awakening and in the controlled conditions of the sleep lab are generally trustworthy. Among other things, this means that reports of not dreaming are taken to be equally trustworthy as reports of dreaming. What’s tricky, however, is that reporting the absence of experience during sleep isn’t the same as reporting dreamless sleep experience, yet the kinds of questions that sleep scientists ask sleep lab participants about their sleep experiences generally haven’t been sensitive to this difference. So we need to refine the kinds of questions that we ask participants in the sleep lab when we wake them up and ask them to report about their experiences.

Dreamless sleep experience, according to the classical Indian conception and its contemporary refinement, is characterized by the absence of images and thoughts, and more generally by the absence of the subject-object or self-other structure of experience in the waking and dreaming states. To the extent that the default view treats dreamless sleep experience as a conceptual absurdity rather than as a tractable empirical matter, it fails to see the necessity of refining our conceptions and the questions we ask in the sleep lab. And this means that it actually contradicts how dream science has improved our understanding of sleep experience through its refinement of sleep lab protocols. To put it another way, given the methodology by which dream science works—necessarily relying on self-reports from timed awakenings during sleep—it would have to acknowledge the existence of consciousness in dreamless sleep if experiences fitting the conceptual profile of dreamless sleep experience were reported by sleep lab participants and if these reports could be correlated with neurophysiological measures. Whether such experiences occur is an important and empirically tractable question, but one that sleep science is only beginning to address. So the default view, understood as the a priori and conceptually driven view that consciousness disappears in dreamless sleep, is not only flawed but directly contradicts the working methodology of sleep and dream science.

3:AM: How does using aspects of Advaita Vedānta and Husserl help you to characterize dreamless sleep experience in terms of ‘selflessness’?

ET: That’s a complicated question so I have to go step by step.

Advaita Vedānta characterizes dreamless sleep experience as lacking the subject-object structure of consciousness in the waking and dreaming states. Instead, there’s said to be simply a feeling of peaceful absorption and of not knowing anything. If we translate this conception into philosophy of mind terminology, we can say that although dreamless sleep experience has a phenomenal character (peaceful absorption), it lacks both an intentional object (the state is not about or directed toward anything) and the sense of belonging to a subject (there is no felt sense of being an intentional agent). The Advaitin conception suggests—again using contemporary terminology—that a certain type of sleep experience is characterized by dissolution of the self-other distinction, so that the feeling of being a distinct self is absent. In contrast, the feeling of being a self remains present in dreams. One of the core features of the dream state is the feeling of “immersion,” that is, the feeling of spatiotemporal self-location. In this way, the dream state is a phenomenal “self state,” whereas dreamless sleep experience is phenomenally “selfless.”

You might wonder, how is it possible for someone to remember a dreamless sleep experience if there’s no sense of self present in the experience? Episodic memory requires the “encoding” of experience, so if there’s no experience of “I” being encoded in dreamless sleep, then how can I remember that I experienced being dreamlessly asleep?

The Advaitin answer is that although the “ego sense” is inoperative in dreamless sleep, it reactivates upon awakening and immediately appropriates to itself the lingering impression or retention of the feeling of the dreamless sleep experience. As a result, one retrospectively says, “this experience was mine,” as it were asserting ownership of the experience.

The heart of the Advaitin view of recalling dreamless sleep, therefore, doesn’t so much concern what we would call “episodic memory”—the mental act of recollecting a past experience. Rather, it concerns what Husserl, in his phenomenology of time consciousness, called “retention,” which is the inclusion of the just past in experiencing the phenomenal now. The Advaitin idea is that, at the moment of waking up, you experience by retentional awareness having just been asleep. When you say you were peacefully asleep, what you report, in the first instance, comes from this retentional awareness and isn’t the product of having to make an inference.

Putting these cross-cultural philosophical pieces together, we get the following idea. Dreamless sleep experience is a kind of “pure subjective temporality” (to use Jenny Windt’s term). It’s an experience lacking a sense of spatial self-location (which is present in dreams) but characterized by an absorbed and non-conceptual feeling of the phenomenal now. If we think of this feeling as a kind of bare or minimal sentience, then we could describe it as the sheer “feeling of being now.” This feeling lingers upon waking up and immediately attaches to one’s conceptual and autobiographical self-representation, such that one retrospectively appropriates and asserts ownership over the dreamless sleep experience.

I should point out, however, that both Advaitin philosophers and Husserlian phenomenologists would want to qualify the description of dreamless sleep experience as “selfless.” Strictly speaking, for Advaitins, although the state is egoless, because the ego-sense (which is responsible for the sense of self we have in autobiographical memory) is shut down, it wouldn’t count as absolutely selfless, because the Advaitin view is that the true self is consciousness in its purely reflexive and non-intentional nature. In contrast, those Buddhist philosophers who accept that consciousness is reflexive—not all do—deny that it meets the criteria for being a self. For his part, Husserl describes retentional consciousness as “pre-egological,” but nonetheless thinks of it as a minimal form of self-experience. These issues may in part be terminological, but there are also conceptual disagreements about how to analyze the notion of self—whether this notion can be applied to the reflexivity of passive retention (Husserl) or the reflexivity of pure awareness (Vedānta), or whether such states do not meet the criteria for even minimal phenomenal selfhood. In addition, the Nyaiyāyikas and many Buddhist philosophical systems deny that consciousness is reflexive and maintain that it’s always relational and takes an object. So the issues about consciousness and selfhood play out in complicated ways, especially when the Indian materials are brought into dialogue and debate with analytical and phenomenological philosophies of mind.

3:AM: Can you tell us something about how you characterize lucid dreamless sleeping? There’s something of a paradoxical feel to that isn’t there?

ET: Indian philosophical traditions generally acknowledge that our attention and awareness can be intensified through meditation practice. In the waking state, this means being able to calm the mind and sustain attention on a chosen object, or to heighten one’s awareness of whatever experientially occurs from moment to moment without preferential selection or deselection. Sleep provides another occasion for such practice. One is said to be able to learn to watch what happens phenomenally as one moves through the various levels or states of sleep—falling asleep (the hypnagogic state), dreaming, and deep sleep. From this perspective, we need to distinguish ordinary experience and experience in which there is a phenomenal sense of insight. For example, in an ordinary dream, there is no feeling of insight into the state as a dream. A lucid dream, however, is defined by the presence of such a feeling of insight. This feeling doesn’t necessarily take the form of a conceptually and propositionally structured knowing that you are currently dreaming. Sometimes it takes the form of simply being aware of or being able to attend to the dreamlike quality of the state. Similarly, lucid dreamless sleep is dreamless seep with the presence of a phenomenal sense of insight. Classically, this is described as being able to “witness” the state of dreamless sleep. Now, given that dreamless sleep experience doesn’t have a subject-object structure, the “witnessing” can’t be a metacognitive monitoring that makes the sleep state into an intentional object. Rather, it would have to be a kind of non-conceptual meta-awareness. Whether, from a cognitive science and philosophy of mind perspective, we can make sense of the concept of such a mental state is a difficult matter. Another possibility is that lucidity here consists not in an ongoing awareness of dreamless sleep as it happens, but rather in being aware of entering into and emerging from the dreamless sleep state. In other words, lucidity may consist in being aware of the phenomenal edges or borders of the state from within sleep, such that one can retrospectively report on their phenomenal qualities.

In any case, sleep science is in position to test these ideas, by using experimental participants with training in sleep and dream meditation practices, along with the proper protocols of carefully timed awakenings, refined phenomenological questions, and precise neurophysiological measures. There are a couple of scientific studies of sleep in long-term meditators with suggestive results, but much more work needs to be done.

3:AM: What are white dreams and why are they significant in your analysis?

ET: Jenny Windt called my attention to white dreams and their importance. White dreams are impressions of having experienced a dream but being unable to describe anything about the dream. Some white dream reports may be due to forgetting the dream. But some may indicate a unique type of sleep experience, in which one has a minimal sense of spatiotemporal self-location occurring in an otherwise imageless dream. Given this possibility, it makes sense to ask whether there might be another subtype in which there is just the experience of phenomenal temporality but with no sense of spatial self-location and no sense of self. According to the conceptual criteria I mentioned above for distinguishing the dream state from dreamless sleep experience, such a subtype of white dream would qualify as a dreamless sleep experience. So white dreams are significant because they provide another conceptual and phenomenological path toward delineating dreamless sleep experience.

3:AM: Subjective insomnia also sounds like a very strange state – being asleep by thinking you’re awake and how do you explain this state?

ET: Subjective insomnia is a kind of sleep-state misperception, in which patients perceive being asleep as being awake, and thereby underestimate the time they sleep. This can cause great distress, including significant cognitive impairment. Jenny Windt has made the intriguing proposal that patients with subjective insomnia may be maintaining a prereflective awareness of their ongoing sleep state while mistakenly conceptualizing it as a state of wakefulness. In other words, they have a kind of lucidity, because they have state awareness of sleep. Their lucidity isn’t the full-blown conceptual and metacognitive kind, in which they can think, “I am asleep.” Rather, Windt’s proposal is that it’s an implicit meta-awareness of the sleep state, and that it’s precisely the presence of this meta-awareness that leads them to misconceptualize their state as one of being awake.

3:AM: What do we gain by investigating the approaches to sleep, consciousness and dreaming via Advaita Vedānta, Yoga, and Indian Buddhist conceptions? Do you think Western conceptions have been hampered by being largely unaware of different philosophical approaches and that western philosophers – and neuroscientists – need to be more aware of alternatives? Is yours an appeal for cross-cultural philosophy of mind and consciousness?

ET: Sleep or dream science is relatively young—it only really got going in the 1950s with the discovery of REM sleep. Mostly, it’s investigated how twentieth and twenty-first century Americans and Europeans sleep in the sleep lab. In addition, most of these participants are undergraduate students or sleep clinic patients, and most are “WEIRD”—Western, Educated, and from Industrialized, Rich Democracies. Philosophical discussions of sleep and dreaming reflect this cultural background. The Indian philosophical traditions bring new conceptual tools and analyses to the discussion. They offer a philosophical perspective informed by the treatment of sleep and dreaming as occasions for meditative practice. Of course, this perspective is normative—it aims to promote certain sleep states as part of a contemplative way of life. But precisely by being normative it can help to bring to light the implicit and often hidden normativity of our own cultural and scientific conceptions of sleep and dreaming. Drawing from the Indian traditions also can help us to enlarge and refine our conceptual and phenomenological taxonomies of sleep experience, and this in turn can suggest new questions for the cognitive neuroscience of sleep and dreaming. One job of philosophy here is to keep track of the conceptual and methodological complexities of such a cross-cultural undertaking. So, yes, my appeal is for cognitive science and philosophy of mind to become cross-cultural.

3:AM: Is the position you’ve built up one that substitutes the default position with something like: dreamless sleep is a mode of consciousness rather than an absence and that you’re asking for a much broader taxonomy of sleep states than has been acknowledged before?

ET: In my view, the default position should be treated as an empirical hypothesis. Once we do so, considerations from cross-cultural philosophy of mind, sleep science, and cognitive neuroscience suggest that what we crudely call “dreamless sleep” comprises experiential states or phases in which consciousness is present, and therefore that the default position should be rejected. One upshot is that we need to refine our taxonomy of sleep states in order to delineate the different kinds of deep and dreamless sleep states, some of which may count as experiential or phenomenal states distinct from the states of waking, dreaming, and lucid dreaming. Another upshot is that it’s no longer acceptable to define consciousness as “that which disappears in dreamless sleep and reappears in the waking and dreaming states.”

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3:AM: How does this impact on the broader philosophical issues regarding consciousness, perception and so forth? Are there examples of classic issues that would be massively helped if consciousness was conceived of and approached along the lines you propose?

ET: Here are a few broad philosophical issues about consciousness that I approach cross-culturally in my book, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy: Is perception, or more generally the stream of consciousness, continuous or discrete? (William James treats it as mainly continuous, the Indian Buddhist Abhidharma philosophers treat it as discrete, and cognitive science suggests it occurs in rhythmic pulses. Readers who want a quick taste of these ideas can read these two blog posts of mine at The Brains Blog and Psychology Today.) How should we conceptualize the relationship between consciousness in the sense of cognitive access—“access consciousness”—and consciousness in the sense of subjective experience—“phenomenal consciousness”? (Dream states, dreamless sleep, and certain meditative states provide new cases for thinking about this issue.) Is the self an illusion or a construction? (I argue that it’s a construction and not an illusion; I use lines of thought from Indian philosophy to argue this point against what I call “neuro-nihilism,” which is the view that the self is an illusory fabrication of our brain). More generally, I use the Indian framework, which distinguishes between awareness, the contents of awareness, and ways of identifying with certain contents as I or Me, in order to analyze how consciousness and the sense of self shift across the modes of waking perception, mind wandering, falling asleep, dreaming, lucid dreaming, dreamless sleep, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, and dying.

There’s also important work by other philosophers on consciousness that is cross-cultural. Jonardon Ganeri, in The Self: Naturalism, Consciousness, and the First-Person Stance, mobilizes many concepts and analyses from centuries of Indian philosophy, putting them into dialogue and debate with analytical and phenomenological philosophies of mind in order to develop a rich account of the self. Ganeri also has a forthcoming book using the thought of the 5th century CE Indian Buddhist philosopher, Buddhaghosa, to present a comprehensive account of attention; the book’s central idea is that attention does much of the work normally attributed to the self. In addition, there are recent books by Christian Coseru and Jay Garfield that use Buddhist philosophy to treat issues about consciousness.

3:AM: Is meditation something that should be used in investigating philosophy of mind issues?

ET: I wouldn’t put it quite like that. To investigate philosophical issues we need philosophical thinking. Meditation—at least as understood in our contemporary culture—doesn’t provide that. But it’s important to note that the English word “meditation” doesn’t adequately capture much of what goes on under the heading of “mental cultivation” in Buddhist practice. This includes sustained and focused analytical reflection on a given topic, such as the nature of awareness, the nature of suffering, or the impermanence of phenomena. Meditation in that form is philosophical because it focuses and intensifies critical, reflective thinking on matters that are inherently philosophical. It should also be said that meditation is a subject matter for philosophical reflection in Indian, Tibetan, and East Asian philosophies. By contrast, the phenomenological diet of philosophers of mind has always been rather meagre—mostly sensory qualia—so taking account of meditative states and the effects of meditative practices on human life enriches the discussion.

3:AM: Although we’ve focused on consciousness, dreaming and sleep do you think that philosophy in general should be more cross cultural in its approach. Perhaps by using methods from other cultures some philosophical bottlenecks might be bypassed?

ET: I think it’s a scandal that philosophy isn’t cross-cultural. We live in a polycentric, multicultural world. If philosophy today is to fulfill any of its obligations as these have been identified in any deep philosophical tradition, then it has to be cross-cultural. Although the institutional structure of the philosophy department lags far behind on this urgent matter, I’m happy to say that there is an increasing amount of excellent cross-cultural work being done by individual philosophers in English in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Here we see ideas from Indian epistemology used to cast new light on contemporary theories of knowledge (Jennifer Nagel, Stephen Phillips, Jonathan Stoltz); ideas from Buddhist logic used to cast new light on metaphysics and semantics (Graham Priest, Koji Tanaka); ideas from Chinese philosophy used to cast new light on ethics and moral psychology (Owen Flanagan, David Wong) as well as cognitive science (Edward Slingerland) and philosophy of mind (Eric Schwitzgebel); and ideas from Buddhist philosophy used to cast new light on meta-ethics and action theory (Bronwyn Finnigan). I could mention many more examples (in addition to the works by Coseru, Ganeri, and Garfield already mentioned).

3:AM: Some commentators have criticized philosophy for being irrelevant – but certainly in the area of mind and consciousness it seems a pretty exciting time. Why do you think we need to heed philosophers?

ET: Yes, it’s a very exciting time for the study of mind and consciousness. I work a lot with cognitive neuroscientists and they recognize that real progress in this area requires working collaboratively with philosophers. Philosophical assumptions go into the conceptualization and design of every scientific experiment seeking to find out something about the mind. Philosophers can play a crucial role in bringing these assumptions to light, in making sense of the findings, and in suggesting new avenues to explore. So scientists who criticize philosophers as being irrelevant seem ill informed about the state of play in this area.

At the same time, philosophy is no mere servant to science. Philosophy deals with unique questions about meaning that science on its own is incapable of addressing. Some of these questions can become very intricate—think of realism versus anti-realism debates in metaphysics, or transcendental questions about the conditions of possibility for experience—but some of them are basic questions about how to live a good life and how to face death, the kinds of questions that were central to philosophy in the ancient worlds of India, Greece, and China. Science on its own provides no guidance with these questions. Anytime any scientist purports to give a “scientific” answer to them, he or she is no longer speaking as a scientist but instead is doing philosophy—or trying to do it, and often not very well. Anyone who says that philosophy is irrelevant just has a bad philosophy.

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that would take them further into your philosophical world?

ET: At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I’d mention again my most recent book, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. I’ve also mentioned Jonardon Ganeri’s book, The Self: Naturalism, Consciousness, and the First-Person Stance. Jennifer Windt’s, Dreaming: A Conceptual Framework for Philosophy of Mind and Empirical Research, is a game changer for philosophy and science. Readers interested in some of the intricacies of cross-cultural philosophical debates about consciousness and the self could have a look at Self, No Self? Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions, edited by Mark Siderits, Evan Thompson, and Dan Zahavi. Finally, Jay Garfield’s new book, Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy is a must read for the cross-cultural philosopher.


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Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, October 4th, 2015.